This book...THIS BOOK...
Okay, so the reason I even bothered with this was, if you couldn't tell from several previous posts, because of the Denver Publishing Institute. (Seriously, my time there was so incredible--it CHANGED ME.) During one of the round-tables, where we literally sat at round tables, we had the opportunity to pick the brains of various editors and publishers and artists about their companies, their specific roles, etc. One of the interns/teaching assistants, who I actually felt fairly familiar and comfortable with, was one of those editors, and The Night Circus was one of the books she'd worked on. It's a big deal, really, because this intern/teaching assistant was working freelance at the time, so to interact directly with the author and have such a hand in how the book ultimately turned out is really really remarkable.
One thing I remember in particular was something she shared with us about a train scene. There's a scene in the book where the main circus-involved characters (front-characters, I guess you could call them) are on the train that transports the circus around the country/world. The scene wasn't submitted with the original manuscript--it was added later at the suggestion of this intern/teaching assistant. That train scene? It's actually a really pivotal point in the novel, and she--this wonderful, talented person with an impressive skill set who looked at my work and gave me critical, valuable feedback--put it there.
I started reading this on the flight home from Denver, and it took me several months to finish.
The Night Circus is, in many aspects, a love story. The back flap describes the circumstances of its development--forbidden love amidst a to-the-death magical competition--set in the arena of this 'magical, enchanting, spellbinding, mesmerizing' (thanks Associated Press for the blurb) circus. But what struck me most powerfully about this love story is that, like, the protagonists very rarely, if ever, directly interact with one another; Marco is stuck working with blueprints and plans, never with the circus itself, and Celia is actually an act for the public to enjoy. The two romance each other through super elaborate, complex, and intricate displays of magical ability that, still, don't allow much concrete communication between them.
Celia walks through a tent housing an ice garden Queen Elisa of Arendelle would sell her troubled soul to produce, and she just knows it's for her. She just knows the creator, her foe in this competition she's been training for her whole life, made this masterpiece of magical art for her.
It's really really weird, because how Celia derives the supposed intent of the ice garden exhibit isn't really explained or explored. She just knows.
Marco's infatuation with Celia seems a little more grounded, however. Working with the blueprints and plans for the circus' expansion, he sees what she produces and when. So he falls in love with her talent and skill, a thing he can directly observe through his Marauder's Map schematics. Admiration turned affection, if you will, and it's a transition in emotion that makes sense to me.
So the love story, to me, seems super romantic but only in its antiquity. It's almost chivalrous in that the lovers communicate through letters and poetry (or displays of magic, in this case) to communicate with one another. Knights and Ladies of High Court in some romanticized and historically inaccurate tale from Camelot. It's that sort of romance. It's that type of love story. It's a kind that's hard for me to take seriously or connect with on a real, human level.
To be fair, the reader can also define the love of the love story through other facets, if the Celia/Marco lens is too lackluster. There's the love between the founders of the circus, the love the founders have for their creation, the love of one- or first-time patrons attending the circus, and the love of the patrons who form a super enthusiastic fan club that actually follows the circus around the world, just to name a few. So yeah, it's fair to call this a love story.
Then there's the circus itself, which almost overshadows the (any) love story plot. It's a place and a character and a cause and an effect and so completely, utterly, encompassing. It's an eternal monolith created by mere(?) mortals in this alternate Victorian-era.
When speaking with the intern/teaching assistant/editor of this book, she described the original manuscript as the Morgenstern's attempt at wrapping stories around the theme of a tarot deck (also created by Morgenstern). The theme of the tarot deck can, really, only be described by the book's title, and its cover designs both in hardcover and paperback. Blacks and reds and silvers, silhouettes and sparkles, flat colors and layers. And the Morgenstern, she said, fell so in love with this concept, this night circus, that she absolutely had to explore it further. Hence the creation of Marco and Celia, and the strange way the story is told: vignettes, snapshots, cinematic-style scenes, roving perspectives, and then, of course, traditional chapters and story-progression. The editors and publisher did a fantastic job of wrangling all these undulating thoughts and ideas and emotions into something coherent, but its disjointed beginnings are still very much present in the final product.
It's interesting and bold, I'll say that. Innovative, even, but I'll also say it doesn't hit my particular tastes.
In the round-table, the intern/teaching assistant/editor described the book as a menagerie for the senses, or something to that effect. The author, she said, focuses heavily on smell--a sense that is often overlooked when describing a scene or setting--and it really immerses the reader in the magic of this circus.
I...don't agree, entirely.
If you don't feel like authors pay attention to the idea of smell, you're not reading genres where smell is particularly relevant--like in a sci-fi/fantasy novel with a werewolf character that, you know, has heightened werewolf senses, like, um, smell. And creative nonfiction, where, because olfactory senses are tied closest to memory, narrators tend to mention how people and places smell because of what it means to the universal human experience.
Basically, I don't think smell is 'often overlooked,' and I don't think Morgenstern's use of it 'immerses the reader.'
In fact, the reason this book took me so long to finish was because I wasn't immersed.
I didn't experience the circus as a reader--I was told about the circus. I didn't watch or feel Marco and Celia fall in love--I was told about the cosmic elevation of their romance. I didn't taste the hot chocolate or popcorn--I was told it was rich and savory and unlike anything tasted before, it was so magical. So while Mogenstern uses a lot of really compelling words and is really good at describing things, in the end, its just a bunch of creative seven-cent SAT words on a page. Emotion isn't necessarily evoked unless the reader offers to do least 78% of the work the story should be doing to evoke that emotion. And frankly, my dear, I wasn't a reader willing to invest that much effort.
Overall, for me, this was a very arduous read, a labor of love because I wanted to see the work of this editor (intern/teaching assistant) I had come to admire. Because if its interesting formatting--the way the pages are printed, the use of black and white spaces--I might have picked it randomly in a bookstore. Maybe.
But that admission doesn't change the fact that I was ultimately really disappointed with this book. I've mentioned the idea of stories and styles and books making promises and whether they successfully deliver on them, and this book just doesn't do it for me. Many people enjoy it. Many people love it. I'm just not really one of those people, despite its noteworthy structure and whimsical, magical, stylistic choices. I like being shown things. I enjoy falling in love right along with a character or narrator. I wanted to experience The Night Circus, but instead, I was just told about it. In great detail, but still told.
If you want to read a book with a structure and story-telling style that bucks convention, or if you're looking for a classical sort of romance story; if you're interested in seeing how many different ways someone can describe a spectacular thing through different perspectives or if you are honestly just looking for a modern fairy-tale, The Night Circus will be a book you enjoy and probably can't put down. I recognize the spell it casts, and though I didn't fall victim to it, I really wish I had.